Online: Object of the Month

"The Usual Consequence of Martial Law": William Cheever's Diary during the Siege of Boston

Nancy Heywood
Digital Projects Coordinator

William Cheever diary, 1775-1776

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Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.

This 12-page diary kept by Boston merchant William Cheever (1752-1786) contains entries about events in and near Boston during 10 months of the tense 11-month period known as the Siege of Boston, 19 April 1775 to 17 March 1776.

The Siege of Boston

During the Siege of Boston, the New England Army formed from the militiamen who answered the alarm on 19 April 1775 (who became the Continental Army when it was established in June 1775) effectively contained British troops within the boundaries of Boston, and, after the Battle of Bunker Hill, to the peninsula of Charlestown. Many residents moved out of Boston, and some Loyalists from the surrounding countryside moved into town. Conditions within the town were harsh for all who remained; although the British maintained control of Boston Harbor, provisions dwindled within the town while they waited for supply ships to arrive.

Cheever's manuscript diary commences with an entry dated 19 May 1775 in which he writes that he returned to Boston after safely relocating his mother and sisters to Taunton, Massachusetts.  Cheever's succinct entries cover the realities of living through a long military campaign. He describes press gangs and imprisonments within the town on 19 June (on page 2) as "the usual consequence of martial law." His diary entries describe raids and vandalism committed by both sides (see entries for 30 May, 12 July and 9 January), bombardments (2 August, page 4) and the scarceness and expensiveness of food (12 August, page 5).  He also describes the Battle of Bunker Hill in his entry for 17 June (on page 2) and the damage the British troops did to the Old South Meeting House (15 November, page 7).  Cheever's final diary entry describes the last day of the Siege, 17 March 1776 (page 12) and records that General Howe and the British troops left town "upon which the Continental Army enter'd it."

The British were forced to evacuate Boston after George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, seized and fortified Dorchester Heights, just south of Boston, on the night of 4 March 1776 and from that location positioned cannon aimed at British ships anchored in the harbor. The artillery deployed by Washington had been captured from Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point and laboriously brought from Lake Champlain to Boston by Henry Knox and his men during December 1775 and January 1776.

Who was William Cheever?

William Cheever was born in Menotomy (now Arlington), Massachusetts, in 1752.  His parents, William Downes Cheever and Elizabeth Edwards Cheever, were members of the First Church in Boston.  He attended Harvard College and graduated with the class of 1771.  After college he worked as a merchant for his father's business both in Boston and then in Amsterdam.  By 1784 he was back in Boston and purchased property there (on Battery and Commercial streets). He died in 1786.

Siege of Boston Website

A new website, The Siege of Boston: Eyewitness Accounts from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (, makes available hundreds of manuscript pages written by a dozen individuals affected by the Siege of Boston. These letters, diaries, journals, financial accounts, and narratives provide researchers and history enthusiasts a way to experience the Siege from the perspective of both besieged and besiegers.  Included is a long letter written in the form of journal entries from Sarah Winslow Deming to her niece in which Deming describes the stressful conditions in Boston during the first day of the Siege and her difficult departure from in Boston on 20 April 1775.  Also included are a few letters written by Andrew Eliot, the minister of the New North Church.  Although Eliot successfully helped his family get out of Boston, he opted to stay and serve the members of his congregation who remained in town.  Several manuscripts document the perspective of soldiers who served in the American militia.  Obadiah Brown provides details about daily life in his regiment, including being fired upon while standing guard at Lechmere Point, and General John Thomas writes to his wife from Dorchester Hill on 9 March 1776 about the efforts to move artillery and troops--the military maneuvers that enabled the Continental Army to end the Siege later that month by forcing the evacuation of the British troops from Boston. 

Sources for Further Reading

Ellis, George E. March 17th, 1876 : Celebration of the Centennial Anniversary of the Evacuation of Boston by the British Army, March 17th, 1776.... Boston: printed by order of the City Council, 1876.

French, Allen. The Siege of Boston. NY: Macmillan Company, 1911.

Hale, Rev. Edward E. "The Siege of Boston," Chapter II in The Memorial History of Boston, volume 3, edited by Justin Winsor. Boston, 1881.

McCullough, David. 1776. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

"William Cheever."  From Biographical Sketches of Those who Attended Harvard College in the Classes 1768-1771 by Clifford K. Shipton. Sibley's Harvard Graduates, volume 17.  Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1975. Pages 501-502.

"William Cheever's Diary, 1775-1776."  From the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings October, 1926 - June, 1927, Volume 60.  Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1927. Pages 91-97.

In addition to owning Cheever's manuscript diary (listed as, William Cheever diary, in the online catalog) the Massachusetts Historical Society's Caleb Davis papers contains two letterbooks relating to business matters kept by William Cheever, some letters written by him, and several manuscript volumes written by his father, William Downes Cheever.  The first letterbook kept by William Cheever contains copies of letters he wrote from Boston dating from 1779 to 1781 and also from 1784 to 1786.  The second letterbook contains copies of letters William wrote from Europe (mostly Copenhagen and Amsterdam) between 1781 and 1784.

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